Tell anyone other than an ardent golfer that you’re going to Fenway, and they’ll ask you to say hi to Big Papi and Jason Varitek for them. Tell the ardent golfer, on the other hand, and they’ll not only know that Yankee Stadium is much closer, they’ll be totally jealous, too, because they know Fenway is a terrific A.W. Tillinghast golf club nestled cozily in the Westchester neighborhood of Scarsdale and regarded by many as one of his best.
Before you spit your coffee all over your laptop at that assessment, no less a personage than Ran Morrissett -- one of the brightest minds in golf architecture and the founder of GolfClubAtlas.com, a world-wide golf architecture think tank -- asked that very question in his essay on the club’s history.
Morrissett was hearkening back to the early 1920s when Fenway was intended to be as difficult and fascinating as Tillinghast’s more recognizable designs such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Bethpage Black and Quaker Ridge. But his opinion was echoed by Tom Doak, golf course critic for Golf Magazine-turned world-class architect.
The club had originally contracted Devereux Emmet (of Garden City and Leatherstocking fame) to build a course equal to nearby Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge. The property was perfect terrain for golf – 240 hurly-burly acres of an old James Fenimore Cooper estate that tumbled through tall hardwoods and over rocky Westchester outcroppings. While someday it might be fascinating to research exactly what Emmet designed in 1922, whatever he did, it was gone in two years; in 1924 the club hired Tillie to start all over again.
It’s golf’s version of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” Or is it “Monkey see, monkey do?” I never can remember.
Tillie was only too glad to oblige, and while not as long and relentless as Winged Foot, nor as penal Quaker or Baltusrol, Fenway is by no means any less interesting or important to study. The horizontal sweep of fairways around deep bunkers means golfers need to have control over both distance and accuracy. The greens are small, heavily contoured and well protected by deep bunkers, so distance isn’t needed to defend par well.
Indeed, one of Fenway’s greatest strengths is its collection of short par 4s. Great architects can say more in 300 yards than indifferent architects can say in 490, and shorter is also usually sexier, with the temptation to try to shave distance in search of a birdie leading to a double bogey instead. Tillie gave us two museum pieces in that regard at Fenway: Nos. 1 and 15.
Though a short par 4, the opening hole has superficial elements of a Reef Hole, a Tillinghast template that he used rarely but to great effect. From the tee, the bunker on the right looks greenside, but instead a section of fairway invisible from the tee swerves around it much like a ship avoiding a reef and coming into port, hence the name “Reef Hole.” The distinguishing strategic element of the hole –- a ridge running longitudinally that either sheds balls short and right of the green or filters shots to back left pin positions -- is not present here. Moreover, all of Tillinghast’s true “Reef Holes” are par 3s (such as at Paramount or Shackamaxon). But the superficial appearance is no less visually arresting, and it’s a fun and low impact way to open a round.
The first also introduces another common theme for the round: open route to greens so players can use the ground game.
“Of all Tillinghast’s courses, Fenway may best highlight the options for the ground game,” wrote Morrissett, and both the first and second holes feature opportunities for golfers to run shots up through the apron and towards the day’s pin placement.
Morrissett also once opined in a conversation with your author that not enough truly great courses have a short par 4 late in the round (Cypress Point and Forsgate’s Banks Course being two notable exceptions), but the 15th at Fenway is one of golf’s best short par 4s, primarily because of its tiny, pushed-up green (only 2,500 square feet) bracketed by deep bunkers at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Perhaps only three other wedge shots inspire as much terror: in descending order, third to first, the 14th at Pebble Beach, the eighth at Pine Valley and the 17th at Sawgrass. As the axis of the green is parallel to the fairway, and the green’s rim features wild contours, the best approach must be from the dead center of the fairway. Otherwise, capricious bounces will make recovery dicey.
Other highlights of the round include the Sahara bunker complex at the short but dangerous par-5 third, the rolling motion of the idyllic fifth green with the clubhouse standing sentinel behind, the all-or-nothing excitement of carrying 100 yards of bunkers at the long par-4 14th, and the thrilling downhill approach to the 16th green. Moreover at any and every turn, the cunning green undulations keep the golfer in a state of high and (healthy) paranoia, because at any moment you could putt off a green.
That’s the beauty of Fenway: It’s only 6,700 yards long (par 70), but you bleed to death a stroke at a time on some tiny, but treacherous holes.
Tillinghast’s work at Fenway is as relevant today as it ever was, and with the help of a Gil Hanse renovation, a trip to play Fenway is just as much a walk through a golf strategic design textbook as it is 18 superbly fun holes.
“Hanse is merely updating the course for the modern game,” explained member Todd Emmerman. “Some bunkers are being moved back so that they catch shots struck by modern equipment, while still letting players hit the same club for the shot.
The short, but exhilarating par-5 third is a sterling example. The tee shot must avoid on either side of the fairway off the tee, then carry the mighty Sahara bunker complex, before ascending dizzyingly to as green also well guarded by deep bunkers. Hanse’s repositioning of the fairway bunkers has restored the shot to its original challenge Tillie intended. The bunkers are also being positioned right on the edge of the fairways, with no unsightly collar of rough around them, so misplayed shots will end up in the hazard.
“Hanse has also brought back the original fairway mowing patterns and pulled the greens all the way back to the edges of the bunkers – the full extent of the green pad,” continued Emmerman. “Over all, he brought back almost a full acre. Close to 25 percent of the total space of the greens had been lost but is now recovered.”
That 25 percent/full acre amounted to a whopping 13,000 square feet, bringing back a plethora of old and fascinating hole locations.
Combined with a tree removal program that has opened up glorious panoramic vistas all across the golf course (although more trees can still be felled) and suddenly, happily, Fenway is back to looking and playing like it did when it opened in 1924.
As such, Hanse’s work has been universally praised, a difficult accomplishment given such a storied, venerable club with such a sterling pedigree. It’s yet another example of a Hanse restoration that is absolutely true to the original intent of the architect he is restoring or renovating.
“Hanse...carefully researched all available documents and aerial photos,” wrote Morrissett. “They uncovered plenty of material, and through this research the need for interpretation was minimized. Thus the end product was as pure to the original architect’s intention.”
[Author’s Note: As the restoration progresses, we will be revisiting Fenway to see more closely the progress of the project.]